Piecing together the jigsaw - Prospects for improved social relations after the armed conflict in northern Mali
The armed conflict that shook Mali in 2012 and 2013 has had a profound effect on relationships between individuals and communities in the north of the country, and impacted on the life of every Malian. Nevertheless, the split between these communities is neither radical nor irreparable. This is the message that emerges from a new report entitled: “Piecing together the jigsaw: prospects for improved social relations after the armed conflict in northern Mali”, published by the International NGO Oxfam and regional women’s network WILDAF.
Listening to the victims: the voices of communities from northern Mali
The report is the result of an unprecedented study on the impact of the conflict on social relations within and between the populations of northern Mali. Around 2000 people in the regions of Gao, Timbuktu, Bamako as well as in Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso were surveyed by Oxfam, in collaboration with WILDAF Mali and Handicap International.
According to Ilaria Allegrozzi, co-author of the report and Manager of Oxfam’s Rights in Crisis campaign in Mali: “There is a real drive to find a peaceful solution. There is a willingness displayed by the vast majority of people interviewed to begin a process of dialogue and reconciliation, as well as rebuilding stronger socio-cultural and economic links. But there will be challenges, and to overcome them we need to listen more to what the communities themselves are saying”.
Mali has never seen such a destructive conflict in living memory
According to the report, no previous conflict has been so destructive for social relationships. Almost all those who took part in the study described this crisis as “unrivalled”, “unequalled” and “scandalous”.
“This crisis is a nightmare for me. I lost my father and younger brother in previous crises. They were rounded up and executed here in our home because we didn’t flee. I forgave them because it was a mistake. But this crisis hasn’t spared anyone. It’s turned everything upside down”, male interviewee from a village in the region of Timbuktu.
Fear and mistrust have exacerbated older divisions in the communities interviewed. Threats and violence, stigmatisation and a strong tendency to generalise blame are all visible signs of the social breakdown caused by the armed conflict. The statistics speak for themselves: of those interviewed who believe social relations are either average or poor, six out of ten professed to having a problem with a whole ethnic group rather than with individuals. Another revelation from the report is that the perception of worsening social relations is much more pronounced amongst displaced populations than those who remained in the north of the country. Six in ten discussion groups held with displaced and refugee populations believed that relations between individuals and communities in the North are currently “poor”.
Economic relations have not been spared. Over half of the discussion groups (89 of 168) thought that economic relations have been negatively impacted too. According to them, the loss of trust between individuals and communities - and to a lesser extent the displacement of populations - is the main cause of this.
Meeting the challenges for a diverse, peaceful Northern Mali
Listening to the voices of close to 2000 people affected by the conflict, reconciliation between communities in the north still seems possible; although major challenges await all of the parties involved.
The first challenge is that of dialogue. Over half of the discussion groups (96 of 168) declared that the solutions for improving social relations must be anchored at local level and need to be based on an inclusive and participative dialogue involving all Malians, without distinction. Reconciliation should be founded on the secular bonds that have always existed between the northern communities. These fraternal relations need to be recognised, as do the divisions.
“We need to sit down together, talk, shake hands and look in the same direction. We don’t need to hate any more”, female interviewee from a village in the region of Timbuktu.
The question of ethnicity must also be put in perspective. Some of the people interviewed believed that it was a tool used by political leaders to manipulate communities. This observation led Mohamed Coulibaly, Director of Oxfam Mali to declare that, “It would be wrong to say the causes of current social tensions are primarily ethnic. We need to recognise the political and structural sources of conflict that go beyond this.”
Taking into account dissenting voices that may express more radical views, and bringing them into the reconciliation process, is also an important challenge for the the Malian. Indeed, significant minorities – largely from internally displaced and particularly refugee populations – believe that separating communities would be the most appropriate solution for Mali.
Poverty, corruption and the perception of underdevelopment in northern Mali, accompanied by feelings of injustice and marginalization, are seen as factors undermining harmonious social relations. The right to justice, the need to tackle impunity and establish the truth about crimes committed are still widely demanded.
The issue of displaced and refugee populations also requires special attention. Some have already started to return, but there is still a risk of tension and conflict with those who remained. Whilst almost all displaced people surveyed said they want to return home, almost half of them said they fear that they will not be welcomed. “I don’t think we will be welcomed back, because the people who stayed behind have pillaged our shops, ransacked our houses, taken our land killed our brothers”, female refugee, Mentao, Burkina Faso.
“Improved social relations require lasting solutions for those who have fled their homes. Whether they wish to return and be reintegrated, or be relocated elsewhere, it has be done peacefully. Their needs should be met equally alongside those in their home areas, and those who are hosting them”, states Omer Kabore, Oxfam’s Director in Burkina Faso. Improving the management of aid is also part of this challenge, with the report showing examples of mismanagement providing a source of tension in some of the areas surveyed.
Finally, the study revealed that the Malian government is seen both as part of the problem and solution. To this end some of the communities interviewed called on the government to play a central role in the reconciliation process. They believe that the government needs to strengthen the judicial system to guarantee the rights of all Malians and be able to fairly and transparently judge those who have committed abuses. This reconciliation process needs to guarantee stronger participation from the whole population, especially groups such as women and young people that have been marginalised but have a potentially positive role to play.
In doing so the authors of the report believe that the jigsaw that makes up the social fabric of Mali can be put back together.
For further inquiry or interviews, please contact:
Awa Faly Ba – Dakar – firstname.lastname@example.org, +221 77 639 41 78
Vincent Tremeau – Bamako – email@example.com, +223 66 75 47 46 Jean Kébéré – Ouagadougou – firstname.lastname@example.org, +226 75 42 05 08
WILDAF Mali is an association for the promotion and defence of women’s and children’s rights in Mali. It is well established throughout Mali and works in partnership with local organisations. It is involved at several levels supporting populations affected by the conflict in the North. It is a member of several national, Africa-wide and global networks.
The survey that this report presents was carried out simultaneously in Mali and Burkina Faso in June 2013, in collaboration with Handicap International and WILDAF. It adopted a qualitative approach that sought, through a combination of open and closed questions, to discover the perceptions, views, fears and hopes of various populations of northern Mali who have been directly affected by the crisis. The data was collected through discussions held with 168 focus groups in two regions of northern Mali (Timbuktu and Gao), as well as with internally displaced people in Bamako and refugees living in two camps in Burkina Faso (Goudebou and Mentao). In addition, 166 individual interviews were held with leaders and influential people at community level in order to deepen the analysis.
The study only explores relations between populations from the north of the country. The points of view of communities from the south were not consulted due to logistical constraints, although Oxfam, Handicap International and WILDAF are aware that a lasting reconciliation can only take place with the involvement of all Malians. Consultations and analysis on a national scale would be indispensable for a comprehensive, global and effective understanding of the main factors causing tension between communities across Mali.
This research is intended to be exploratory and indicative, rather than conclusive. Since the chosen methodology is qualitative, the report can provide only general trends and does not aim to reflect the perceptions and views of all Malians.